Epic Leadership Lessons from Super Bowl 50

Football season is over and while the Super Bowl ‘game’ itself was less than a tantalizing experience, the post-game experience for me was EPIC. Why? Because I coach young Quarterbacks and young Quarterbacks look up to NFL players like Peyton Manning and Cam Newton. There were lessons to be learned watching these Quarterbacks before, during and particularly after the game. Young aspiring Quarterbacks not only try to model the game time mechanics but more importantly they model the behaviors of popular College and NFL QBs. They watch their body language on the field and on the sidelines and they watch them perform in pre-game and post-game interviews. As a former High School football coach I can tell you in no uncertain terms, far too many young athletes don’t have a strong influence at home who can help them interpret and digest what they see from their idols on television.

There is no doubt that Cam Newton is an incredibly talented athlete who has and will continue to have a huge impact on the game of football. Like it or not, that impact gives him a HUGE ‘platform’ to stand on which allows him to impact young lives. The question is, will this impact be positive or a negative?

I got home after the Super Bowl and turned on the TV. I watched Cam Newton’s short post-game interview with frustration. I knew that it would immediately be the source of much banter on social media. Why? Because he broke a universal law of leadership. There are certain universal laws leadership that humans have come to understand. Laws that when broken – rub against our inherent grain and cause mere mortals to become incensed with anger. The type of anger that presents itself as attacking behavior on social media, on television and at the very least in our discussions with friends.

To understand how a ‘universal law’ of leadership was violated, one that upsets our inherent beliefs at our core, we need go back to evolutionary times. After all, we’re talking about human nature and natural human contracts that are formed over time.

In anthropological times, mankind lived in small tribes. Over time this turned into small villages. Eventually, natural human laws that were established became part of the human DNA as it exists today in our larger and more ‘complex society’ but yet still a society as it were in earlier days. Back in the time of small tribes and villages leaders emerged. These leaders were what we now call the ‘alpha’ beings. There were both alpha males and females. Typically, they were people of great physical strength, they were brave and accomplished hunters and warriors. The reward for their abilities was an elevation in their society. They were given power and control. They were also ‘served’ by others. They had the best cut of meat or the freshest fruit when it was time to eat. They had their choice of the best mate when it came time for that. This was the natural order of things and it’s really not much different today. It’s simply evolved as our society has evolved. Today our leaders are still served in much the say way but it looks a little different. Their status is shown in the form of high salaries, media attention and access to special privileges. These are the benefits and rewards of leadership status.

The important thing to understand however, is that this status is not FREE! First, it is earned and later it comes at a cost. Let’s go back to our earlier human times again. When the tribe was threatened, the leader – the strong warrior was expected to be the one to pick up his club or his sword and defend his tribe or his village. You see, leadership comes at a cost. It comes with great expectations and great responsibilities. When duty calls, leaders need to sacrifice themselves….not others.

To prove how these natural laws of leadership responsibilities are engrained in our DNA look no further than today’s corporate leaders on Wall Street as an example. When banks begin to struggle or fail and their CEOs continue to make huge salaries and big bonuses all while they fire (sacrifice) their loyal employees we become incensed with anger. We can see it in smaller local governments as well… These laws apply to any organization whether it be political, corporate or sports no matter how big or small. Too many of people in our modern culture hold leadership positions but don’t have the first clue of how to lead. True leadership begins with understanding what leadership is and the cost of ‘self’ that ultimately comes with it. There comes a time when any leader needs to sacrifice their ‘self’… to cut, reduce or suspend their rich salary or benefit package. A time to pick up the sword and lead the charge onto the battle ground. A time when they need to set their selfish indulgences aside and sacrifice themselves for the greater good of the tribe, the village, the corporation, the team! A time when they need to show what being a leader is and what is expected of them.

Sports are a microcosm of society. A parallel universe if you will. Understanding these universal laws helps explain why we feel good watching the likes Tom Brady or Peyton Manning in the twilight of their career. It’s because they’re at a point where they firmly understand that the game – their fans and their teammates are bigger than they are. They have a healthy respect for the game and what it takes to be successful. They know that they cannot succeed alone so they are humble in their demeanor when they are shown such privilege. In defeat, they lift up their teammates and they show respect for their opponent. They take responsibility for failure, even when it’s not their fault. In victory they deflect attention from themselves and then give credit to their coaches and teammates. Sometimes even when great credit is justifiably theirs. It’s almost a ‘self-deprecating’ attitude that they show and it feels so good for us to watch this. It feels good because it’s so rare in a world that lacks so much leadership. In fact it feels so good that the end result is that it elevates their status with us in society even further.

Did Cam violate this universal law of leadership? In my opinion he did. He did so by not sacrificing his ‘self’ by NOT showing a strong posture in defeat. A posture of confidence, strength and humility. Confidence that his team would learn from this experience, strength that would show his organization his resolve to work to get better as a player, teammate and leader. And finally humility by acknowledging that his opponent was simply a better football team on this day. In addition, Cam is being criticized for key play during the game where he was stripped of the ball and didn’t look aggressive in his attempt to recover it. It’s clearly a dangerous move for a quarterback to launch his body into a pile of flying bodies but given the circumstances, one that would have demonstrated his understanding of the natural laws of leadership, the law of ‘sacrifice of self’. Many people will judge or criticize athletes. Sometimes it makes them feel better about themselves in spite of their own faults or inadequacies. Before we do this however, I think we need to give people an opportunity to learn. Clearly being on such a big stage was uncharted water for any young quarterback. Hopefully Cam will receive good council from his coaches and learn how to continue to grow as a leader. After all, it’s easy for fans to forget how young these athletes are.

This was just a game and in the overall scheme of life and time no one will remember a post-game presser or a botched effort to get on a loose ball. The bigger question is what do athletes learn from their experiences and more importantly what do our young impressionable athletes, our future citizens learn as they watch them? At the end of life, most people on their death bed ask 3 questions and these 3 questions don’t have anything to do with money or material possessions. They are relationship oriented questions:

  1. Did I Live? There is no doubt cam is living his life out of the fullness of his heart. He’s having fun, enjoying the moment and celebrating with his teammates all while NOT taunting his opponents.

  2. Did I Love? This involves relationships that we have formed in our lives… Did I love others and was I loved by others? Clearly Cam loves football and loves his teammates and coaches. His passion for life in general is undeniable.

  3. Did I Matter? This is the all-important legacy question people have at the end of their life. This is the X factor for Cam in my mind when it comes to the platform that he has been given to stand on through the game of football. Clearly he’s a phenomenal talent but the game of football will prove to bigger than him. It’s my hope that he will embrace his platform and use it to show young aspiring athletes and future citizens how to behave in sport which ultimately models how to behave in life. Hopefully he will show them what it looks like to be a leader in football because as I tell my young quarterbacks…. “A leader in football is a leader in LIFE!!!

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